America is home to 5% of the planet’s population but holds 25% of the world’s inmates. Let that sink in. From the start, any possible stories that audiences have about the United States being “the land of the free” is put to rest and challenged. DuVernay (Selma) thrusts our attention into a pot of historical, cultural and sociopolitical insight. We are given a very educational yet brutally honest lesson, talking about history, politics and many other things that have been a contributing factor in creating the world we live in today, all accompanied by stunning visuals and a masterful soundtrack.
This documentary’s etymology is directly from the 13th amendment in the American Constitution. This was the amendment that effectively “abolished slavery” except for the loophole that allows you to be enslaved if you commit a crime in the United States. The intelligence to DuVernay’s film is how it lays out the number of ways in which this one loophole has been exploited throughout history, leading to America’s current system of mass incarceration and the successful re-enslavement of black bodies, trading the master’s lash on the plantations for orange uniforms behind bars.
DuVernay has collected an assortment of lecturers, activists, journalists and historians to take us through this story of systematic oppression that has plagued black people through the centuries and well into the modern-day. The film picks apart the case of how racism been allowed to run riot in American society. The flick is educational and horrifying, but not boring. Constructed with an orderly timeline, the film starts by showing how the emancipation of slaves devastated the southern economy when Lincoln’s 13th amendment halted the exploitive free labour by over four million African-Americans.
Speakers throughout the movie include The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander in addition to renowned civil right activist Professor Angela Davis whose activism can be traced back to the 1960s as she had ties to the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panthers. Supplemented with copious amounts of archive footage and photos, audiences will be shell-shocked with images of the trauma that was a daily occurrence in Black America during slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and into Jim Crow’s America between 1865 and the 1960s, and into the modern-day where many of the issues discussed still linger.
Audiences are consistently subjected to brutal and harsh footage of students being assaulted, merely for going into a segregated school or sitting in a “whites only” restaurant (Sit-Ins). The film’s quality isn’t only shown through harrowing visual imagery. Each of the experts joins each incident together like pieces of a jigsaw. Furthermore, DuVernay overcame her own misguided views as she says “…our current national status of having the world’s highest incarceration rate was the doing of Republicans…”. After deconstructing and working the case, so to speak, you see there’s been political plays occurring in both parties.
It doesn’t openly declare for a specific party, it opens up lines of enquiry that both parties have issues, in a poised and sensible manner. It clearly states the roles that both American political parties played and how they added to the problem of mass incarceration, and what they’re doing to correct their errors as well. Moreover, 13TH tells us how America’s current presidential candidates Secretary Hillary Clinton and business tycoon Donald Trump, both played their part in the mass criminalization and the imprisonment of “the black male”, coming from Trump’s call for the murder of the Central Park 5 and Clinton’s constant labelling of poor black children as “super-predators”.
13TH is an important movie for many reasons. Firstly because of the depiction of its historical context as it shows how each section of US history has added to the state of its current reality. One of the big talking points throughout is how oblivious people are of the bigger picture that has impacted defenceless black communities; from the re-enslavement of black people through Post-Bellum, to using the War On Drugs as a façade to target the African-American, or most recently, using the American Legislative Council to finance private prisons relative to black males for income. This excellent feature spurs us to know our history (if we don’t already) and to make sure that we learn from it, which we don’t seem to be.
Talking about race is alike to the saying “don’t poke the bear” as you will receive a reaction that often leads to hostility. It’s an emotional subject that touches us all. It’s a construct that is hundreds of years old. DuVernay’s take on it is one of the best I’ve seen in a while. She’s direct to the point and doesn’t pussyfoot around the issue. In addition, the take on institutionalized prejudice is addressed superbly well. The themes mentioned throughout have been relevant for decades and they’re as important now as they were all those years ago, as we add police brutality to the list of woes.
No matter your geographical location, class, gender or race, racism is a chat that finds its way into the very fabrics modern society’s soul. There’s no escaping it, and it’s a topic that everyone has an opinion on, as it finds its way into our daily politics, schools, sports and education. When NFL player Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the US national anthem, there was outrage from celebrities and the Joe Bloggs’ of our society alike, as many took to social media to vent their outrage. Many claiming it was disrespectful to a country that paid his fat paychecks into seven figures. They also claimed he had suffered no oppression and that he was part of a nation that had got passed slavery. 13TH proves that is wrong. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.